A lifetime history lesson in a day

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
Rarely in the career of an Airman can you learn so much about Air Force history in such a short time. For me, it fell into one day.

That day, July 22, happened when I went to Air Mobility RODEO 2009 at McChord AFB, Wash. My job was to work my public affairs role in highlighting the competition. On that day, I had a day that historically enriching and I learned and witnessed more military history than some might gain in a lifetime.

Early that day, I went to interview three surviving members of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, Japan, from April 1942. The three men, retired Lt. Cols. Richard E. Cole and Edward J. Saylor, and retired Maj. Thomas C. Griffin, all were on hand to tell their stories of tragedy and triumph. Through the interview I learned they were thankful they had the opportunity to serve their country and they want people to never forget what they went through during World War II.

The historic raid on Tokyo, led by Lt. Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, saw 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers launch from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet for the first air attack on Japan following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. History shows it was the most daring operation yet undertaken by the United States in the young Pacific War.

One U.S. Navy history account said, "Though conceived as a diversion that would also boost American and allied morale, the raid generated strategic benefits that far outweighed its limited goals."

To me, I was sitting before living legends and learning at the same time. What I can tell you is I'll never forget them, their service during World War II and the impression they left with me that day. In my opinion they are heroes, although they don't view themselves as such.

When I asked Colonel Saylor about the thought about being a hero, he said, "That's for somebody else to say. I didn't feel heroic. After the raid, I spent the next few years in Europe taking pieces of bodies out of airplanes. I also saw the scenes of Normandy. There's no way you can call yourself a hero. I've seen too much."

I left that meeting to prepare for my next main interview that same day. I attended a media event that included the Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley and Air Mobility Command Commander, Gen. Arthur J. Lichte.

Although it didn't dawn on me until sometime later, the significance of this interview was historic. First, Secretary Donley is the leader of the world's most powerful Air Force. He's a decision-maker who was there to make the word known about the Air Force of today and how it is being shaped for the future. Somewhere down the road, history books will detail the decisions he makes today and let future Airmen know they were always in good hands.

The same holds true for General Lichte. Here is a person who leads the Air Force's busiest mobility air force command -- AMC. Under General Lichte's leadership, the command has had one of the busiest wartime tenures any commander could surely serve in. AMC's people and planes are all over the world, to include Iraq and Afghanistan, helping our military and allies in winning the international fight against terrorism. Additionally, AMC is bringing hope to people everywhere. I believe history will remember General Lichte as a critical figure as well.

When the interview was done and I started to head back to my office, I came across Medal of Honor winner, retired Col. Joe Jackson. After a sharp salute and greeting, I stopped to ask him how he was. He was kind enough to tell me that he was "glad to be around the Airmen of today." To me it was just an honor to be in his presence.

I first met Colonel Jackson in November 2008 during the most recent Airlift/Tanker Association convention in Anaheim, Calif. While there, I learned of his heroic story.

On May 12, 1968, which was also Mother's Day, then Lt. Col. Jackson earned the Medal of Honor for "profound concern for his fellowmen, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty."

According to the Medal of Honor award citation, Colonel Jackson volunteered to attempt the rescue of a three-man Air Force Combat Control Team from the special forces camp at Kham Duc, Vietnam. Hostile forces had overrun the forward outpost and established gun positions on the airstrip.

"Displaying superb airmanship and extraordinary heroism, he landed his aircraft near the point where the combat control team was reported to be hiding," the citation said. "While on the ground, his aircraft was the target of intense hostile fire. A rocket landed in front of the nose of the aircraft but failed to explode. Once the combat control team was aboard, Lt. Col. Jackson succeeded in getting airborne despite the hostile fire directed across the runway in front of his aircraft."

Not long after talking to Colonel Jackson, I saw retired Col. Gail Halvorsen - the famed "Candy Bomber" from the Berlin Airlift of 1948. Although I didn't talk to him, the reminder of a past interview I had with him was the icing on the cake for my historical day.

Since then, I've tried to think about what it all meant. How rare it was to have that opportunity to be around all those military heroes? As I continue to serve in the Air Force, days like that make me very proud to be an Airman.

That day reminds me that all those historical figures have set the bar high for members of today's Air Force to keep it the premiere organization that it is. I'll never forget July 22. Although the day itself is now history, it's a day that I know where history made an impression on me.